Authors use islands for various purposes. Small islands with only a few inhabitants are often utilised in fiction for their isolation in order to create suspense or horror, often in combination with bad weather so that no-one can get on or off. Desert islands are often a source of adventure, either for people stranded there by shipwreck, for treasure seekers, or as the bases for nefarious goings-on like smuggling and espionage, while larger, inhabited islands serve as miniaturised cosmoses, often full of eccentrics. Below are some dozen books I have enjoyed in which it is important that the stories told in them take place on islands:
- Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe. Full title: The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un‐inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver’d by Pyrates. Phew! This classic has spawned innumerable imitations and spin-offs. It describes the 28-year stay of the eponymous hero on an island. I have never read the full English version of this story, only a translated and, I suspect, abbreviated version, but I am putting it on my TBR list as a book I need to read in full. Whether it will still be on this list after I do so remains to be seen.
- And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie. A tense psychological thriller about 10 people stranded on a small island, one of whom is a murderer who picks the others off one by one.
- Nation by Terry Pratchett. A heart-warming adventure tale of a young south sea islander left alone in the world when his tribe is wiped out by a tzunami, and an English girl left stranded on his island by the same tzunami, and how together they build a new nation out of the refugees that start arriving on the island.
- The Off-Islanders AKA The Russians are coming, the Russians are coming by Nathaniel Benchley. A Russian submarine runs aground on a sandbar near a small island off the coast of New England at the height of the Cold War, and adventure and misunderstandings ensue. This is an entertaining little book that should be read with the political environment of the story firmly in mind for maximum enjoyment.
- The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks. The island in this story isn’t terribly isolated - in fact it’s connected to the mainland by a short bridge - but it’s the kingdom and fort of the narrator protagonist.
- My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell. An elegy for a time gone by and a memoir of a golden childhood, this is also a paean to the Greek island of Corfu with all its eccentric characters and quaintness.
- Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift. All of his adventures take place on a series of islands: Lilliput; Brobdingnang; Laputa, Balnibarbi, Luggnagg, Glubbdubdrib, and Japan. The Country of the Houyhnhnms is presumably also an island.
- Onions in the Stew by Betty MacDonald. The only non-fiction book on the list. A funny account of her life on Vashon Island in Puget Sound.
- A Winter's Tale by Nathaniel Benchley. A depressed theatrical director is hired by an eccentric old lady to direct a troupe of amateur actors in a play, on an island off the shores of New England in winter-time, and drama ensues. Benchley captures perfectly the air of isolation and the eccentricities and the closeness of the small community and it is also quite funny in parts.
- The Mockery Bird by Gerald Durrell. On the whole I enjoy Durrell’s non-fiction more than his novels, but this one is full of interesting and strange characters and he shows he definitely knows his islands. On the surface, this is a light-hearted tale about funny antics and funny people, but underneath lies an important message about protecting nature.
- The Saga of Grettir the Strong. The last chapters with him on the island of Drangey are some of the most memorable in the story.
- Vestal Fire by Compton Mackenzie. This novel takes place on a small island off the coast of Italy (a barely disguised Capri) and describes happenings within the expat community there in the years leading up to the first world war. All seems harmonious as the novel begins, but soon a snake arrives in Eden.I think this book would be a perfect project for the writers (and maybe some of the cast) of Downton Abbey to make a TV mini-series out of.
Island books on my TBR list:
- Treasure Island - Robert Louis Stevenson. I have only only read it in a picture-book edition, but of course I’ve seen one of the movies.
- Whisky Galore - Compton Mackenzie. I've seen the old movie and am looking forward to seeing the new one. Here's the trailer.
- Castaway - Lucy Irvine
- Island of the Blue Dolphins - Scott O'Dell.
- The Sex Lives of Cannibals - J. Maarten Troost.